Demitu Gurmessa and her husband, Hussein Kedir, are sitting on a long wooden bench in the dirt yard outside their home in Jello Dida—a community in the Shashamene District of Ethiopia. Nestled with them are some of their nine children.
Demitu holds out her hand to me so I can feel her palm—rough with the countless chores required to keep her family fed, housed, and clothed. Hussein holds out his, too. It feels just like his wife’s, a hand toughened by work in the fields. For poor people in Ethiopia, that’s what life is; they are bound to hard physical labor—to plowing and planting patches of earth, to fetching water and firewood, to herding goats, sheep, and cattle.
But the couple’s hands are tough for another reason: They are determined to send their children to school, and so to make sure the kids have the time for that pursuit, Demitu and Hussein are shouldering all the work other parents in rural Ethiopia might require their offspring to do. Two of their children have already finished 10th grade and taken national exams; two others are now in 10th grade; and one is in fourth grade.
“The reason we live with poverty is because of our lack of education,” says Demitu, who got married when she was in third grade, at age 11, and left school after fifth grade. She had her first child at age 14.
We have just come from the field where Demitu has been weeding her wheat and maize, forage she ties in a bundle—along with a few ears of precious corn—and lugs home on her back to feed to her prized milking cow and an ox she’s trying to fatten for market. The ox is one of six or seven she has purchased and sold for a bit of profit in the last couple of years –an enterprise she started with the help of a small grant provided by Oxfam and its partner, Center for Development Initiatives, when the area faced high rates of malnutrition a couple of years ago.
Hussein, a bone-thin man of 45, has been sitting quietly by his wife while we discuss that program and a recently formed grain bank in which Demitu holds a share and which will help the family have enough to eat during hard times, earn them a better price for their harvests—and maybe ensure more income for school fees.
Suddenly, Hussein asks to speak.
“An uneducated person means a blind person,” he says. “An educated person can make a change. An educated person can help himself and contribute to his country and serve his community.”
Hussein says that he has a second wife, and points to her home across the yard. Between them, they have four children. That makes Hussein the father of 13 children—a responsibility that weighs heavily.
In a region where polygamy is an accepted practice among some groups, I’m impressed by the self-understanding in what he says next.
“It’s very difficult to support all these family members, but at that time (when he took a second wife), my awareness is not what it is today,” says Hussein. “It’s due to lack of education. But I’m doing my best Sto support them with food and clothes. That’s why I’m working day and night.”
I think about the courage it took for Hussein to discuss openly with us the burden of his choice, especially as it is encouraged by long-standing tradition—which can be hard for anyone, in any culture, to shake themselves free of.
When we shake hands goodbye, I feel the roughness of Hussein’s palm one more time, and hope for the education of every one of his children, and of Demitu’s, too.